6/1/11 – TG: “There are lots of things mentioned in the Bible we don’t practice in civilized society”

Texarkana Gazette
June 11, 2011
By: Lynn LaRowe

Former Alamo Christian Ministries Member Testifies

A former Tony Alamo Christian Ministries member testified in a civil trial Tuesday that he considered suicide when he learned he was to be beaten for a third time with a wooden paddle.

“Maybe dying would be better than to go through this,” said Spencer Ondrisek under questioning from Texarkana attorney David Carter. “I couldn’t imagine something worse.”

Testimony from witnesses in a civil lawsuit filed by Ondrisek, 20, and Seth Calagna, 21, in November 2008 began Tuesday after a jury of five men and three women were chosen to decide the case. The suit seeks compensation from Alamo for physical and emotional pain and suffering as well as punitive damages. Both men were raised in the controversial ministry.

Alamo, who is currently serving a 175-year prison sentence for sex crimes, is not attending the trial in Texarkana’s downtown federal building. His wife, Sharon Alamo, is seated at the defense table as his proxy.

“What happened was reasonable. It was justified when it happened, and their stories have been exaggerated,” said Alamo’s defense attorney, John Wesley Hall of Little Rock. “The story gets bigger every time it’s told.”

Carter told the jury Alamo is guilty of battery, conspiracy and outrage. Alamo conspired with John Kolbek, his 6-foot-4-inch enforcer, to beat and intimidate children and adults, Carter said. Kolbek was initially named as Alamo’s co-defendant in the suit.

Once a fugitive wanted by authorities for an alleged beating of Calagna, Kolbek never answered the suit. U.S. District Judge Harry Barnes entered a $3 million judgment against Kolbek, and the case against Alamo was severed. Kolbek died of a heart attack earlier this year on a rural farm in Kentucky where he was in hiding with his wife and children.

Randall Harris, who operates a private investigation and forensic accounting firm in Texarkana, was the first witness to take the stand. Harris retired from the FBI in March 2010 and led the federal investigation that resulted in Alamo’s 2009 conviction.

Harris testified Alamo exercised tight control over his flock, practiced polygamy and enforced his rule with corporal punishment and forced fasting.

“He taught them that the government was of the devil and that if they ever get questioned by the government, it’s OK to lie,” Harris said.

Hall asked Harris if he is aware polygamy, fasting and physical punishment are described in the Bible.

“There are lots of things mentioned in the Bible we don’t practice in civilized society,” Harris said.

Harris testified members worked on ministry property in exchange for food and housing. Requests for clothing and other necessities had to be approved by Alamo. Members were occasionally given “bucks” to spend as they chose, but were not paid for their labor or allowed to own property.

Harris also told the jury about Justin Miller, a 12-year-old boy who was beaten in 1988 at Alamo’s behest on ministry property in California. A federal judge awarded Miller and his family a $1 million judgment and ordered property near Dyer, Ark., known as Georgia Ridge, be seized to satisfy it.

Harris said when he learned Ondrisek was planning to leave the ministry in May 2008, he asked those assisting him if he was willing to talk.

“He wasn’t just reluctant, he was adamantly reluctant,” Harris said.

But months after his break with the group, Ondrisek talked to Harris.

Tuesday, Ondrisek told the jury he began working 70 hours a week unpaid at 15. Ondrisek testified that as a child of 8 or 9, he worked several hours nightly in a church-owned warehouse rubbing expiration dates from donated canned goods that were later resold. Failing to attend a nightly church service or falling asleep while on watch duty were punishable offenses, Ondrisek said. Ondrisek said he was taught as a child that Alamo was a “prophet, and everything he said came from God.”

Ondrisek said that at 10, he was moved from his parents’ home to a trailer on ministry property in Fouke, Ark., called the “brother’s dorm.”

Ondrisek told the jury he was 12 the first time Alamo ordered Kolbek to beat him with a wooden paddle.

“I was terrified,” Ondrisek said.

Ondrisek said Kolbek taunted him as he struck him 10 to 20 times in the face with an open hand for making tunnels in dirt while he was performing landscaping work.

“He said, ‘You think I like doing this? I love doing this,’” Ondrisek testified. “Then he grabbed the board and told me to bend over and grab my ankles.”

Ondrisek testified Kolbek wielded the board with both hands, swinging it like a baseball bat.

Ondrisek described being beaten again by Kolbek at Alamo’s insistence at age 14 and at age 16 or 17. Ondrisek said his second beating came from using a squirt bottle as a water gun during horseplay with another boy.

Ondrisek said the other boy, his 12-year-old sister and an adult member in his 50s were also beaten the same day.

Tony Calagna had made the mistake of questioning an Alamo decision, Ondrisek testified. He told the jury Tony Calagna was down on “all fours” and crying when Kolbek broke the board on his body.

Ondrisek described his last beating as his worst.

“It was so bad, it was the worst thing I’ve ever felt in my life. I thought he would kill me,” Ondrisek said.

Ondrisek told the jury he considered running during the three months after his third beating while on “diesel therapy.”

“But I had no where to go,” Ondrisek said.

Diesel therapy is a punishment for boys that consists of time on the open road with members who work as truck drivers for one of the church’s businesses.

Ondrisek said he contacted his brother, who had already left the ministry, after returning to Fouke and asked for help. The brother arranged for someone to pick up Ondrisek and another boy as they were on watch duty at 6 a.m. He said he is now living with a younger brother’s foster parents and works at a tire store.

Ondrisek said he doubts he’ll ever participate in an organized religion again.

This morning, Calagna is expected to take the stand and give an account of his years in the ministry. U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Bryant told the jury Tuesday testimony would likely take two to three days.

In: 2011

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